Chapter XVIII: The Black Gang News

It is not a pleasant feeling to wake up one morning and discover you have been cut off from all your shipmates, or your shipmates have been cut off from you. The union hall had been declared off limits for all the "screened-out" characters. The union newspaper would not print my letters of protest, and the membership would be putting their livelihoods in jeopardy just by being seen with me.

You feel your back is against the wall, and you must continue the fight to get back into the union in some manner, to continue to warn the rank and file that their union is heading downhill under the present set of conditions. So, how to strike back?

At our seamen's branch of the Party we discussed all the angles of fighting back, and when all the debating was over, we at least agreed upon one course of action--to put out a rank-and-file newspaper. We called it the Black Gang News. The BGN was first published by the Marine Firemen's Union during the 1936-37 strike and had been the news source for our membership.

Now that we had agreed to put out a paper, we had to find the money for printing and distribution. It would not be easy, but we did manage to get some longshore union officials, sympathetic to our predicament, to make monthly donations from their paychecks. Within weeks our first edition appeared. We solved our distribution problem by mailing the paper to delegates on our contract ships as they arrived in different ports. It meant a lot of research, a lot of folding and stuffing and addressing. Our contacts with the longshoremen also helped to get the paper on board ships and into the crews' mess rooms.

With our few friendly contacts within the union who attended the union meetings, we got a good idea what was going on. From what we learned from different ships' crews, we also had a fair appraisal of the major beefs aboard ships. Each issue of the paper had lots of up-to-date information. This was baffling to the officialdom who thought they had rid the union of the Left. Now and then we received a few dollars in the mail with no name or address on the envelope. In the official union paper, the officials had to admit the paper's existence by blasting it and threatening those who read it. This was a sign that the paper was bothering them.

There was the matter of trying to make a living. I was cued in by a friend who told me I could get some work through the Machinists' Union. This local did most of the minor ship repair work along the front. I applied, was given temporary status after a day's work, and told to show up the following week for initiation into the union. In that one week, someone got the word out to the FBI and the FBI got word to the Machinists' Union. When I appeared before the investigating committee, I could feel a chill. It was cut and dried. "Do you have a Coast Guard clearance certificate?" I was asked by the chairman of the committee. "No," I replied, "I don't have a Coast Guard clearance."

"Well, in that case, we cannot clear you for work or for membership."

"I know half the membership working in this union," I replied, "and many of them are ex-Marine Firemen who I sailed with. I know they don't have Coast Guard clearance passes, yet they work every day and are members of the Machinists' Union. How come they don't have to have a Coast Guard clearance pass, but I do?"

"What they have or don't have is not the point. The point is that you don't have a clearance, and no clearance, no work. We would advise you to get a Coast Guard clearance, and when you do, return here and we'll reopen your case."

Well, that took care of the AFL Machinists' Union. However, across the Bay in Oakland, the CIO Machinists' Union, a rival union that was attempting to increase the scope of its jurisdiction among marine machinists, heard of my case. Within two days I got a phone call inviting me to Oakland to join their union. Of course, their idea was to give me an opportunity to assist them in their organizing, which was surely okay by me.

I was initiated and given my book, and true to their word the secretary gave me an assignment slip to a local shipyard for a night job. There was no problem walking into the shipyard and past the guard at the gate. Assignments were handed out by the foreman on the job. "You, Bailey, will work on the destroyer escort on the blocks," he said.

"That destroyer?" I asked, making sure I received his message correctly.

"Yep. There's a bilge suction valve in the lower forepeak. Take your toolbox down there and give it a good overhauling. That should keep you busy for a while."

I greeted the sailor sentry at the top of the gangway as I moved slowly up the flush deck with my toolbox, passing some big guns along the way. As I passed the sailor, who returned my greeting, I took a few seconds to mull over the position I was in. What would happen if this sailor was told that a Communist with a toolbox had just passed him on his way to the inner chambers of the bow? Just a short time ago I was barred from even sailing on so much as a ferry boat plying between San Francisco and Oakland. Now this "dangerous radical" was right on board the country's defense mechanism, passing under the big deck guns to get to the bow. Somebody, I concluded, goofed.

At the forepeak was a small manhole which I undogged and opened. A ladder extended from the underlip of the deck, straight down some 25 feet, leaving just enough room for one person to work among crossing beams, frames and ribs. I could see the four-inch valve about six inches from the bottom of the keel. I lowered my toolbox and climbed down the ladder. I worked four hours on the valve, reseating and repacking it. All the time I was down there in that little sharp bow of the ship, not one single soul put his head into that hatch to see what I was doing or if I was dead or alive.

For five more days I would walk through that gate and get the nod of approval from the gate guard, be assigned a new job on each occasion and get the approval of my foreman that my work was okay. The weekend came and passed, and at the beginning of the second week, as I was going out the gate, I was told: "Mr. Bailey, I must inform you that unless you have a Coast Guard clearance by tomorrow, you will not be allowed to pass through this gate."

I figured it took someone a week to get a handle on my new job and get me fired, because when I checked later with 15 men I worked with, I learned that only two of them had the Coast Guard pass.


Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three